India women's hockey coach Sjoerd Marijne shares Olympic-size 'big dream'

India women's hockey team coach admits he's "very proud" of the progress made by Rani Rampal and co., who secured qualification for Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Rani Rampal (right) and coach Sjoerd Marijne address the media during the Tokyo 2020 Hockey Qualifiers.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

The dramatic Olympic Qualifier that saw the team book its ticket to Tokyo by the slimmest of margins at the cost of a shocked USA on Saturday was perhaps the closest to a movie script Indian women’s hockey had written in a long time. The final flourish came, not unsurprisingly, from the stick of captain Rani Rampal, the lynchpin of this side for a decade.

For the girl herself, though, it was deja vu on field. “Before scoring there was nothing on my mind except aim and shoot. It was a good move all the way from the back and Lalremsiami didn’t give up even when she lost her balance, everyone made the effort to not let the ball go out of the circle. After, my first thought was of the last qualifiers when I scored a similar goal and then managed to qualify for Rio,” Rani said after the game.

That match, in 2015, saw the Indians defending their one-goal lead for almost 45 minutes against Japan. On Saturday, they had to do it for only 12 but against a rampaging, physical USA, that felt an eternity.

“We knew we had to keep it simple and not make any mistakes at the back. Whatever beautiful hockey we wanted to play was to be done only in their half. Everyone knew what was needed, what we had to do and what each one’s role was. We knew this was our chance after Asiad disappointment. Everyone took responsibility and I didn’t have to tell them much. We did it together,” Rani added.

Asiad figures in every interaction by every member of this team. Those missed chances in the final that necessitated this circuitous route to Tokyo continue to rankle the girls. For coach Sjoerd Marijne, though, it was a tense first half hour that made him wonder if all the work done with the girls in the past 27 months in pursuit of an Olympic dream would be undone by one bizarre day.

Read: Rani's goal takes India to Tokyo 2020

“The first half, I was like what is going on here, what’s happening and we really reacted. I really thought the pressure was gone and we had four goals, so watching with Wayne (Lombard, the conditioning coach), I didn’t know what was going on. I could not adjust any one thing because there were so many things that were going wrong!” Marijne admitted.

But spare a thought for USA. Down four goals against a dominant host in a stadium the likes of which they have never seen back home filled with crowd they can only dream of, the team of youngsters gave itself a chance when no one else did, and almost pulled off one of the biggest comebacks in modern hockey.

“They are devastated, I am devastated, we played really, really well today and were just unlucky. The yellow card in the end changed the game, I think that was harsh. I am proud of them because no one gave us a chance after yesterday. But we lost the game yesterday, not today,” a drained coach Janneke Schopman admitted.

She did question the two video referrals, the yellow card to Alyssa Manley in the 48th minute -- minutes before India got the all-important goal – and advocated a more free-flowing game but also admitted that the constant pressure from India in the final 10 minutes did affect her team’s momentum. That pressure, Marijne revealed, was the key to not just stay ahead in the game but ensure the Indians did not get space to over-think the game.

“The only thing you can do on the pitch is run. Because if you are running, you are not thinking about winning or losing. I had to take the pressure off the girls and we had to put USA under pressure and get them to make mistakes,” he said.

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Rani Rampal celebrates with her team-mates after her crucial goal that sealed India's place at Tokyo 2020 Olympics.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

When he took charge of the Indian women’s team for the first time in February 2017, Marijne would have assumed he had 42 months to produce a decent performance at the Tokyo Olympics, an improvement on the 12th place finish and zero wins in 2016.

He got only 34, broken into two stints which meant the first seven months meant little when it came to producing results. In the past 27 months, he has managed to take the girls to an Asian Games final, a respectable 8th finish at the World Cup, victory at the FIH Series Finals against Asiad winner Japan that ensured enough points to assure a home Olympic Qualifier, and then won the qualifier in dramatic fashion.

“That’s a dream, you want to be there at the Olympics because it is the biggest thing but also because as a team we believe we can do better than the previous Olympics. One thing that is very important to mention is how they have grown as a person, as a woman taking responsibility. They are very smart girls and I am very proud of their process,” Marijne had previously explained.

The dreams have gotten bigger now. “The dream is to get a medal at the Olympics and the most beautiful colour is gold. This was just the first step, it was not easy but we have a big dream and I am proud of the fighting spirit of these girls. Preparation starts tomorrow morning, we have to go on, we only have 10 months,” he declared.

He told the girls after the game that he was in the country for hockey, not to get a new heart. But for now, he and the girls get a well-deserved two-week break before they get back putting the heart into working for the bigger dream.